Three years ago, I posted my theory on a coach’s timeline for defensive influence and stamp on a team. I thought it might be interesting to dig into some data and see if the theory continues to pull some weight, or if the ever-increasing coaching carousel in the NBA is rendering my theory irrelevant. What do the numbers show, and is there any sort of correlation with a fresh coach and a new defensive scheme? Let’s take a look.
Since this is a Jazz site, we’ll start with Quin Snyder. The year before Snyder arrived in Utah, the Tyrone Corbin-led Jazz were dead last in defensive efficiency (they’d been at or near the bottom during Corbin’s tenure). While, yes, those teams featured Al Jefferson in the paint, Steve Clifford was able to find a way to make a Jefferson-anchored defense a pretty solid defensive team, so the Jazz’s defensive deficiencies during the 2013-2014 season can’t be placed at Jefferson’s feet. Corbin’s scheme will have to take the bulk of the blame. In Snyder’s first season with the Jazz, the Jazz ended up as the 12th-ranked defensive team in the league, thanks to a meteoric rise in the rankings once Enes Kanter was traded and The Stifle Tower—aka Rudy Gobert—was unleashed on the league. In Quin Snyder’s second season with the Jazz, the 2015-2016 season, the Jazz rose further to the 7th-ranked defensive team in the league, even amidst injuries to Gobert and Derrick Favors where they spent significant time on the sidelines.
Theory status: Boom! In my book, that qualifies as solid validation for the two-year defensive coach theory.
Since we already brought him up, let’s dig a little bit deeper. Steve Clifford has now been the head coach of the Charlotte Horcats for 3 years. For the two years prior to his arrival in Charlotte, the Horcats were the 30th-ranked team defensively in the league. Dead last. Then, in 2013-2014, Clifford was brought on board and, with a team lead by Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson, Gerald Henderson, Josh McRoberts, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, catapulted to the 6th-ranked spot. I still scratch my head as to how that was possible, but Clifford pulled off something quite remarkable there. The Horcats have kept their defensive ranking in the top 10 in subsequent years (9th in both 2014-2015 and 2015-2016).
Theory status: This qualifies as quite a speedster version with a one-year defensive adjustment, so the theory itself is a little wobbly.
Replacing Doc Rivers in Boston meant filling some pretty big shoes, especially considering Doc’s Boston teams were often in the Top 10 defensively—2nd in 2011 and 6th in 2012. With both coaching and roster turnover, Stevens started from scratch and, in his first season as Boston’s coach, the Celtics were the 20th-ranked defensive team in the league. But after having a year under his belt, he guided the Celtics to a #12 ranking in his second year, and a #4 ranking in his third. Could this be more validation for the theory that it takes a defensive coach some time to implement and refine defensive principles for a team? Perhaps.
Theory status: Pretty solid.
Here’s an example that might be an outlier, or might show that a coach who has a great defensive year could be a fluke, or that personnel might matter more than we want it to, at times. Kidd, in his first season as the Bucks head coach, brought a team that was ranked 29th defensively prior to his arrival all the way up to #2. However, in his second year as a head coach, the Bucks plummeted to 22nd defensively. Was it a case of a sophomore slump? Personnel changes that were drastic, trying to incorporate Michael Carter Williams and a rehabbing, Jabari Parker? Was it a change in scheme? Whatever the case, there’s no clear trend here to show that a defensive scheme requires a year or two to implement before it’s solid.
Theory status: Doesn’t support it at all. Does it invalidate the theory entirely? I sure hope not!
Budenholzer is another interesting case where the Atlanta wasn’t a poor defensive team when he started (ranked 6th and 10th in the two seasons prior to his arrival), and his first season showed some kinks as he implemented his defensive scheme: the Hawks ranked 14th defensively in 2013-2014. With no known lockdown defenders and no off-the-charts rim protectors, Budenholzer somehow crafted a system that rose from #14 to #7 to #21 It’s quite an impressive feat. Will the system still serve Atlanta well if their roster changes over this offseason? Time will tell.
Theory status: Solidifies the theory, though pushes it towards a three-year theory.
Overall, looking at rankings and how teams have risen or fallen based on coaching and personnel changes has been fascinating. It might require another look to see what else can be uncovered. But here’s one thing I do know: Quin Snyder is a great coach to help develop this team’s defensive mindset, and we’ve seen that stamp on this team in a short period of time.